February 1, 2005
It Takes a Dream to Make a Village
by Linda Anderson
High Rise was a bit of a shock for ten year old Elliott. The son of a criminal lawyer, accustomed to a sheltered life, he ventured into the wilds of Vermont to live simply with others in the woods. And although the experience pushed Elliott past his comfort zone, his attention-seeking social style and interrogating manner presented a challenge for others as well. But over the course of the month, Elliott became a valued member of the camp family.
Soon after returning home from his third summer at High Rise, however, Elliott was diagnosed with leukemia. To everyone's surprise, he rose to the occasion beautifully, tapping into the newfound self-reliance and strength he had developed at High Rise. While in remission, he came back to the camp the following year, determined to make a much dreamed-of climb of a nearby mountain, without permission from his parents. It was just something he knew he had to do.
The story of High Rise is a love story. It's about the love that manifested from the lives of two young people who had a dream.
In 1963 Don and Carolyn Cruikshank, beloved teachers in Ipswich, MA, left behind family, friends and financial security to bring to life a vision that had lived in their hearts for fifteen years. The camp that they created in Rochester, Vermont, known as High Rise, was modest in a sense -- only 32 children per summer. But where those 32 children came from and what they did is nothing less than extraordinary. This was noble purpose in action, manifested by courage, ingenuity and spunk, nurtured by faith and love. This was uncharted territory.
For the next 26 years, assisted by their own four children, they recruited kids, ages 9-14, from all corners of the world, along with bilingual adults to share their culture, and threw them all together, providing shelter, food, the land, a flashlight, lots of tips, encouragement and guidance.
The children came from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Greenland, Europe, Russia and Indian nations. They came from urban cities, poor rural pockets and wealthy estates. Some campers had never left their tribe or village before, others had been living lives of urbane privilege. But they developed a new sense of family, learned about enduring values, and cultivated an appreciation of diversity. They learned reverence for life in the forest and received survival training in the wilderness, where they learned to trust and depend upon each other and to embrace their differences.
The Cruikshanks poured themselves into this project, spending 80% of each year raising funds to support the summer camps. When problems developed at the camp, as they frequently did, Don and Carolyn promoted a process of "consultation" in which everyone would join together and have a chance to express their views and feelings. "The solutions came from the kids, the most creative and fair solutions." Caroline explained. "They didn't come from us, we were just there to oversee the process."
"The majority of children are not taught that they are spiritual beings, as well as physical beings," explained Carolyn. "They need an opportunity to nurture that aspect of themselves. Unfortunately the lust for the material side of life is dominating our world." High Rise was ultimately recognized for program excellence awarded the prestigious independent international camping award that is given every five years at the annual convention of the American Camping Association. High Rise was the only camp to ever be recognized in all five award categories. In fact, an unprecedented "special category" was created for High Rise "for refusing to accept racial segregation and for creating unity among all races and cultures." Their program was truly in a class by itself.
At the end of every camp session, each child received an award for a virtue they demonstrated. "Who do you think got the courage award?" staff would ask. "Here's a patience award. Whose should it be?" After living together and struggling side by side for weeks, the kids mostly guessed correctly, having become friends, having learned about their flawed but beautiful fellow campers. Then each would carefully place their final stick into the fire, sharing with the group what they were going to pass on to the world, while watching their smoke co-mingle in the grand sky above.
"We knew that some campers still hung their virtue awards in their homes years later," said Carolyn. "What does that say?" It says that the camp was a highlight of their life, and that understanding that everyone has their own special virtues is an important thing to realize.
Carolyn came home one day to find a note on her door. "I don't know who lives here now, but I wanted to walk this land again. Twenty years ago I camped here and it changed my life forever." That note was from Elliott. He beat the leukemia. He went on to skipper an exploratory sailing ship into Antartica, He gave credit to the camp for igniting within him a love for sharing the natural world and an adventurous and courageous spirit. The mountain that he climbed is now known as Elliott's Peak.
Don and Carolyn wanted to create a microcosm of what the world could be, one that would reflect the principles of their Bahai faith. Children from around the globe living together in the woods of Vermont. Cultures colliding and merging within tents, under stars and around fires, night after night. Fears forgotten while hauling water, paddling canoes, and sharing meals prepared over an open fire. Friendships sprouting in all colors and fellowship blossoming in the glorious and diverse face of nature. Unity within diversity was the opportunity and the lesson.
They wanted to create a microcosm of what the world could be. And they did.
Don Cruikshank died in 2002. I met Carolyn at an Asian Culture Camp that was held at High Rise this past summer. She is available as a program consultant and is continuing her work with the Institute for Human Understanding, the nonprofit through which High Rise was sponsored. Carolyn can be reached directly at IHU@innevi.com.Posted on February 1, 2005 9:50 PM